The 51st annual WVSSAC State Wrestling Tournament was everything I expected and then some. There were some great matches, lots of excitement, good sportsmanship, and adequate seating (finally!). Thanks to Coach Archer for opening up the other side of the Civic Center for the duration of the tournament. On a personal level I got to meet some people with whom I'd been corresponding, and I got to share in the joy of victory with families and wrestlers whom I know, but I also had to endure the heartache of seeing young friends come so close to achieving their dreams but not quite close enough.
I want to thank the reader who pointed out that Jonathon Delligatti is Mark Delligatti's nephew, not his son. I was informed that Coach Delligatti will have a son on his team next year. If I'm not mistaken, Steven Payne of Big Creek is the son of former state champion Steve Payne, also from Big Creek. The younger Payne stepped into the state tournament as a replacement for Region 4 4th place finisher Jeremy Lester.
The championship finals were some of the closest I can remember in a long time. One of these days I may go back and check, but I'm wondering if there have ever been four overtime matches in the finals. There were also eleven one-point decisions plus an overtime rideout victory. Whew!
In 1997 Ash Wenmoth only weighed around 90 pounds but still placed third in the state. He was determined to claim a state title this year and had little trouble doing so. He also had a major advantage the minute he stepped on the mat. The majority of the crowd was on his side because - you guessed it - he was wrestling an Oak Glen wrestler (Jason Roberts). Nothing can bring a crowd together like a common "enemy".
Jimmy Johnson, Mike Miller, Denny Lebec, and David Drennen each repeated as champions, but they had to fight just a little harder this year as each wrestler had a closer match than he did in 1997.
Jason Hayhurst and Nat Smith became Ritchie County's first and second state champions, respectively. Hayhurst's victory came as no surprise he came into the tournament ranked #1 in the state, but Smith's victory was another story. All season long, whenever someone mentioned the 140-lb class in AA, it was defending state champion Jason Miller's name that was always placed at the top of the list. But as I mentioned last week, this is a tournament that can take the most unexpected turns. Miller was disqualified in the quarterfinals for an illegal slam and ended up placing third. I heard that when Smith came off the mat after his championship match he told Miller that the title belonged to him (Miller). Now that's winning with grace.
Logan Glass, Chad Purpura, and Luke Salmons were victorious in some of the evening's closest matches as Glass won an overtime rideout, Purpura won in the last second of the match, and Salmons edged out ever-tough Alex McClung.
The OVAC and LKC conferences reigned supreme during the finals (13 out of 14 AA champions came from either LKC or OVAC schools), and the 135-lb weight class was no exception. Mike Witherow and Eric McCartney entered the tournament with no losses against the other 14 competitors in their weight class, but it was Witherow who came out on top in the final match.
The 171-lb and 189-lb were both regional rematches resulting in the same outcome as Steve Kinley and Brandon Kupfer once again defeated their regional rivals. Incidentally, Brandon Kupfer and his runner-up Robert Busick are both underclassmen and could meet in the very same match a year from now. Kinley is Liberty-Raleigh's first state champ.
Garrett O'Neil had the quickest pin of the evening when he put away Stephen Stiles in 3:36. How's this for an interesting tidbit: if Stiles had won the match, the town of Winfield would have been in for a treat - his dad would have taken the green hair dye to his own head of hair!
The AAA defending champions didn't have things any easier than did the AA defending champions. Dan Bonasso, Jason Johnson, and Jason Ward (1996 champ) each saw themselves in extremely tight matches with Bonasso and Johnson winning one-point decisions and Ward winning in overtime.
In winning the AAA 103-lb title, Alex Reed became the first state champion from Point Pleasant as he defeated previously undefeated Chris Johnson in the championship final. Reed also defeated another undefeated wrestler, Jim Shetler, en route to the title. Reed knows what it feels like though, to be in Johnson's shoes. He himself was undefeated going into his championship match last year before finishing as runner-up.
Matt George had high expectations placed on his shoulders this year as everyone was predicting he would become a state champion in his sophomore year, and he lived up to those expectations. Although his opponent Dan Stanley didn't get the same amount of attention, he gave George a run for his money in the championship match.
Joe Thorpe and Adam Gorby had more than just a state title on their mind. They both wanted a bit of redemption. Thorpe missed the 1997 season (due to grade problems) after finishing second his sophomore year. Gorby finished third for two consecutive years after entering the tournament each year with an unblemished record. Both wrestlers knew it was their final chance to win a state title and they both did so in convincing fashion, winning their matches by technical fall.
Nicholas Hedrick and Zach Kerns entered the tournament as the #1 wrestlers in their respective weight classes and they didn't fail to satisfy their fans as each brought home an individual title.
Chris Wilson also became the first state champion from his school as he brought the 135-lb title home to Preston High. Wilson, Ryan Besedich, and Jason Conaway each earned hard-fought one-point decisions over region 2 rivals in their championship matches. In fact, more finalists (12) hailed from region 2 than from any other region. Seven of the fourteen individual champions were also from region 2. Scott Moore of North Marion could have made it eight champions, but Geno Ochap of Wheeling Park edged him out in overtime to claim the 215-lb title.
Mike Thompson was the unsung hero of the AAA finals, pinning favored Ryan Zombro in the second period of their match. In both AA and AAA, the region 4 wrestlers tend to get overshadowed by the rest of the state, and too often talent such as Thompson's goes unnoticed. Thompson is just a junior, so watch out for him next year.
Congratulations to all of the participants in this year's tournament - you did a great job. I also want to congratulate all those wrestlers who placed in their respective weight classes, but I want to commend the young men who finished as runners-up. I know you're all disappointed, but remember that there are 14 other wrestlers who would give anything to be in your shoes and countless others who may have missed making the trip to Huntington by the narrowest of margins. You're all winners in the eyes of your coaches, your teams, your families, and your fans. And remember this - even though your name may not go in the record books as a 1998 state champion, there is at least one guy who will NEVER forget you, and that's the guy who you wrestled your heart out against in that final match of the season. Hold your heads up, because you have a right to be very proud of yourselves!
Amy Alvaro of Weirton Madonna not only made history as the first female to ever qualify for the state tournament, she got her name in the history books as the first female to ever win a match there. Although she caught a lot of media attention as well as attention from the fans whenever she wrestled, there were at least two young ladies who were paying close attention to her matches for personal reasons. Erica Dye of Wirt County will be a freshman next year and has every intention of starting for the Tigers. Jenny Wuchner from Lewis County wrestled for the Minutemen this year and plans to be back next year.
Did anyone notice that the top two AA teams scored more points than any AAA team? That just shows what a tight race the AAA division really was this year. Congratulations to North Marion and Coach Roy Michael on a job well done. By the way, how many of you remember the news article I recalled at the beginning of the season that predicted the AAA title would leave the city of Parkersburg when Marshall and WVU met in football? Interesting, huh. Maybe the author of the article could find himself a job with the Psychic Friends Network!
Congratulations also go out to Oak Glen for winning their second straight AA title. In addition to winning the team title, the Golden Bears also got more mileage out of their wrestlers than any other team in either division, scoring over 16 points per wrestler. Who averaged the best in AAA? It wasn't North Marion or Cabell Midland, or even Fairmont Senior, who is known for getting the most out of their team members. Elkins, with three wrestlers, averaged over 15 points per wrestler and came within twelve points of cracking the top ten. That just goes to show that it's not quantity, but quality that counts when it comes tournament time.
So who's in good shape for next year? We'll cover that subject next time. Until then, it's one more weekend of wrestling for this fan, and then nine long months filled with anticipation for what next year has in store.
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Updated March 3, 1998